Most people wouldn’t know who Lisette Model was, but in photography circles, and particularly in New York City, she was legendary. At one time she was a magazine photographer, she had moved to New York in the 1930s and gone on to be one of the most influential photography teachers of the time. Probably her best-known student was Diane Arbus. Aperture had published a book of Arbus’ photographs to tremendous success, at that time selling over 90,000 copies in the early days of its publication.
Lisette was known to be shy of publication. She had made very large black and white prints at one time and doubted they could be reproduced in a book. But our publisher Michael Hoffman was tenacious and eventually a deal was worked out. Marvin Israel, a gifted painter and designer who was close to the family would design the book, and Hoffman turned the production over to me.
I was printing a lot of books at the time, and we were constantly under pressure to save money and produce breakthrough books at the same time. This was a challenge. I searched for printers up and down the east coast and made deals on massive amounts of custom-made coated paper. But Lisette’s book would be the ultimate challenge.
Looking for the Diamond in the Rough
Marvin had a massive book in mind, and I have no doubt that was part of the reason that Lisette signed on to do the book. But big books present big problems. Not only that, we had to meet the challenge Lisette had set, to get a reproduction good enough that she would sign off on the printing.
This is an expensive and dangerous game. Lisette turned out to be a diminutive Austrian autocrat. She could be charming and incisive, but she could also dictate quite effectively exactly what she wanted and the importance of you doing her bidding very quickly.
I had priced the book at our usual printers but the estimates I got were way out of range. Looking at Lisette’s images convinced me that a different kind of printer could do this book. Many of the biggest images were taken in the 1930s, and had a pronounced graininess.
I had a lead on a book printer down in the Chelsea district of Manhattan, and called to get a price. I was directed to someone named George, but when he started to speak he sounded more like a Moishe or a Slobodan, definitely not a native english speaker. This was not that unusual since we were in New York.
George told me to come down and look at his shop, a crowded printing plant. He had huge presses, palettes of enormous sheets of paper stacked high, men bustling around in the cramped space 6 floors up. And they all had something in common—the were all Hasidic Jews.
Hasids are a very religious and insular sect and many of them lived in Brooklyn at that time. “George” as it turned out, was really a fellow named Chaim. Each man who worked in the office had two names: their real name, and an “American” name for dealing with customers.
But their printing was pretty good, and their prices were better. I knew I could get high quality film from another source. I didn’t need George to make the all-important printing negatives that would be used to create the printing plates. We shook hands on the deal and set a date to get started.
Meet the Artist
I was instructed to get a cab and go collect Lisette at her apartment downtown. She and her late husband had decorated it themselves in a very modernistic style back in the 1930s, and it hadn’t changed since.
We headed uptown to Chelsea to the print shop. Going up in the industrial elevator, she looked a bit suspicious. But when we hit the printer’s office it really got awkward.
Hasidic men, you see, are not allowed to touch any woman who is not related to them. Lisette, ever the person in charge, just marched in, walked up to George, and stuck her hand out. He leaped away in horror, his arms flying back to avoid even brushing up against the toxic person in front of him. Even his beard seemed to retract.
Lisette, stunned, just stood there until she finally backed away, shaking her head. This pretty much set the tone for the rest of the book production.
Getting On Press, and Getting Off
We were printing on a pretty good sheet and running duotones of two blacks, one dark and one greyed out, to try to get both the density and the gritty tonality that was in the prints. The big press roared to life, Lisette took up a seat looking out a window onto the plant floor, and I paced nervously between the office and the press, watching the pressmen do their makeready.
George had crept back behind his desk and was busy doing his estimates, running the business. From this point on he pretty much ignored us.
At last we had a press sheet to show Lizette. It was the moment of truth. Would she approve? I went over the 3 or 4 prints that were on the sheet, and she shook her head, clucking in disappointment.
“Not dark enough, where are the shadows? No, this won’t do, won’t do at all.” She sat back down.
“Okay, let’s see what we can do,” I said, picking up the press sheet and heading back to the press.
Again I brought a proof in, again she treated it with disgust, like something that smelled bad. “No,” she said. “But better.”
I perked up, and headed back for another try. Each time she grudgingly agreed the images looked better. Each time I went back and tried to coax the pressmen to ink up more, something they don’t like to do.
In offset printing, especially on coated paper, laying down the least amount of ink possible just makes sense. You use less ink, the sheets dry faster so they can be moved along the production cycle more efficiently. But I was asking, begging, for the opposite. Grudgingly, the pressman agreed.
In many of the work situations I’ve been in over the years I’ve functioned as a consensus builder, and I could get things done because I was patient enough to allow the other parties to have their say, to exhaust their energy so we could get to a common goal. But this was a challenge.
Eventually Lisette relented. The sheet was good. She scrawled her name on the corner and turned to me. “Where’s my cab?” she asked. I told her it would be right along.
Not All Stories Have Happy Endings, Do They?
Inevitably, as the weeks went by and Lisette and I travelled to the printer’s office, carefully steering clear of Chaim/George, there were some images Lisette simply would not agree to. I had talked to Michael Hoffman about the impasse this put me in. Late one night we were in the office, sitting at Carole Kismaric’s desk.
“Well, you’ll just have to do what’s necessary,” he said. His face was half in the shadow from Carole’s desk lamp, and I couldn’t read him.
“Yeah,” I said, “but what about Lisette? Nothing gets past her.”
“Well, you’ll just have to do what’s necessary,” he said again. I knew that was all I was going to get.
On the last day, when she had signed off on the last sheet, I knew the moment had come. Lisette wanted to know when we would be back for the other images, the ones she didn’t like the first time around. George and I looked at each other warily. We both knew the score, but neither of us said anything.
Lisette just stood there in her black coat, her steely eyes looking from one to the other of us. She knew, and she didn’t like it. Right there she started cursing me out, calling me names, telling me I was reprehensible, she would get me fired, the whole thing. I just shrugged, there was nothing to be done.
The sheets were all printed, sitting on palettes waiting to dry. The book would go on.
The Long Goodbye
Eventually the sheets dried enough to go to the bindery. The resulting book, 12.5″ x 15″ was gorgeous. The printer had done a great job, Marvin’s design presented the images in huge reproductions that really showed them well. The book was selected for the American Institute of Graphic Arts prestigious 50 Books of the Year Award and got great press throughout the photography media, and lots of mainstream media as well.
A few months after it was published I was in a bookstore on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and saw a stack of the books in the front window. I flipped through one and, when no one was looking, ran my thumb over the corner of one of the pages. Sure enough, the ink smudged. It was still wet, a testament to just how much ink we had forced them to put on the sheet to get the look we wanted.
I took to running this test every once in a while, since the book wasn’t hard to find in New York City. By my estimate it was about 2 years after it came off press that the ink finally dried.
We had a big party for Lisette when it was published, and she was kind enough to say a few nice words about me and the production of her book. But I knew the truth.
Lisette Model with a preface by noted photographer Berenice Abbott, was reissued by Aperture in 2007. It remains one of their landmark books.